By Brian Robin
A Role He Was Born to Play
As a member of the Chicano performance group Culture Clash, Herbert Siguenza is used to making you laugh. He lives for the opportunity, because entertaining you, is what feeds and nourishes him. It keeps him going on both a physical level and an emotional one.
And playing an elderly man struggling with dementia as he tries to be the hero of his own story feeds and nourishes him. It’s the flip side of the same artistic coin and Siguenza knows playing Jose Quijano, a modern incarnation of Don Quixote in Quixote Nuevo by Octavio Solis, is something he needs to be the hero of his own personal, artistic story.
The production from one of SCR’s legacy playwrights opened the theatre’s 60th season this past weekend. It runs through Oct. 28 on the Segerstrom Stage.
“I was born to play this role. That’s how I feel about it,” he said. “Everyone knows Quixote and I’m playing this iconic figure everyone knows, but no one really knows. I have to embody him and I think I embody him quite naturally. I relate to the character naturally. It’s my culture. But Octavio made it into Chicano reality. I totally, totally relate to this play on every level—culturally and spiritually.”
As Jose Quijano, Siguenza makes his fourth appearance at SCR, but his first outside of Culture Clash. He and his Culture Clash troupe mates, Ric Salinas and Richard Montoya, previously appeared in The Birds (1998), Culture Clash in AmeriCCa (2008) and Culture Clash (Still) in America (2018-19). While Siguenza played Quijano in well-received productions of Quixote Nuevo at Denver Center for the Performing Arts and Round House Theatre, this role—while satisfying from the standpoint of an artist stretching his boundaries—came with its own demands.
“I come from a comic background. In Culture Clash, we’re physical comics,” he said. “This requires a different muscle. There’s lots of karmic physicality, but this play is also text-based, like Shakespeare, and it requires another muscle. I have to dig deeper in my emotions with this play for sure. It’s very challenging, very taxing (because) it’s about mental health. It’s about aging. It’s about mortality.
“I’m 64 now. These are things on my mind now. I relate to this character a lot. It deals with things I’m dealing with as a person. It definitely triggers me and it’s exhausting.”
He’s also exhilarated. Siguenza sees playing Quijano for a third time as coming with a certain charm. He gets to dive deeper into a role that he said typically goes “to the Shakespeare actors, the King Lears, the Hamlets.” Siguenza said Latino actors rarely get these classical roles, which explains why the exhaustion comes with an excited chaser.
And it’s not like this is an “either/or” for Siguenza. His comedic background comes in quite handy. It serves as a coping mechanism, getting him through the rough parts of playing an emotionally demanding role.
“Ultimately, it is a play. You have to be conscious of that,” he said. “I think coming from my comic background, I don’t take everything so seriously. I think acting is a privilege. I’m not one of those actors who lives in believing what I’m doing. I have one foot in reality. I have to, otherwise I’d go crazy if I thought about it in those terms. That’s how I approach it.
“What we’re dealing with is really heavy stuff, a really heavy situation. It does ding you. But so does life. So does COVID. So does the political situation in America. All these things are dinging me personally on a daily basis, so this is just one more thing.”
The comedy is appreciated, because Quixote Nuevo is full of comedic elements that make this even more of a natural role for Siguenza. Jimmy McDonough in his In Good Taste Denver review noted Siguenza’s ability to combine the funny with the tragic and ran with it.
“His portrayal was equal heartbreaking and comedic genius; physically rigorous and courageous for a man of a certain age,” McDonough wrote. “Fearlessly dressed in night shorts, then junkyard Knight, then filthy beggar, Siguenza filled the entire space with his presence. His crawling lamentation through dusty, dry, canyons still haunts me.”
Nicole Hertvik in DC Theatre Arts zeroed in on Siguenza’s comedic genius, writing that the play is at its best “when focusing on the comedy that is Jose’s quest.”
“Herbert Siguenza turns out a solid performance, inflecting the role of Jose with comedy, sincerity and fragility. There are tender moments when Jose processes disappointments from his youth. And there are plenty of laughs as Jose marches through town, enmeshing unwitting bystanders in his fantasy.”
Again, Siguenza can’t help but make you laugh. It comes naturally. Like Don Quixote, he’s on a perpetual quest. But unlike the iconic literary figure, Siguenza’s quest isn’t a quixotic one. It feeds and nourishes him as he goes. And goes.
“Like Quixote, I have this imaginary dream, this goal,” he said. I don’t know what it is, but it’s a goal. That’s what makes me not stop. There’s this invisible goal one has that inspires us to keep going. That inspiration is there and it’s tied to my community. It’s not art for art’s sake. It’s tied to the advancement of my community.”